Highlights from the Parergon archives: Grendel’s mother again

We asked members of Parergon‘s Early Career Committee to tell us about a Parergon article that really stood out for them and why they found it valuable for their research. In this post, Emma Knowles reflects on Renée Rebecca Trilling’s ’Beyond Abjection: The Problem with Grendel’s Mother Again’, Parergon 24:1 (2007), pp. 1-20 (DOI 10.1353/pgn.2007.0059)

Renée R. Trilling’s Parergon article ‘Beyond Abjection: The Problem with Grendel’s Mother Again’ is a piece of scholarship that I have found myself returning to on a regular basis since I was an undergraduate at the University of Sydney. In it she tackles the representation of Grendel’s mother in Beowulf in an original and interesting way, despite the large volume of scholarship that already exists dealing with that character. Trilling’s analysis of Grendel’s mother emphasises her ambiguity as a character and builds usefully on the previous work of Paul Acker by tying Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject to Beowulf and to Grendel’s mother in particular.

To the abject she adds Kristeva’s conception of the semiotic, arguing that it is not just abject or maternal characteristics which define Grendel’s mother; it is also her existence outside the ‘linguistic economy’ (4) of the text. Trilling’s analysis considers key areas of criticism associated with Grendel’s mother’s characterisation, including the role that translation plays in defining her monstrosity and the role that changing pronouns play in representing her gender. She draws these threads together to demonstrate that Grendel’s mother is disruptive in the text ‘at the level of language as well as plot’.

I read this article as an undergraduate while thinking about Grendel’s mother as a character. Trilling’s clear articulation of the relationship between Kristevan concepts and Beowulf was a key moment for me as it developed my understanding of how theory can unlock new ways of thinking about older texts. Her work was especially influential for me as I wrote my master’s thesis. In this research I considered the relevance of Kristeva’s theory of the abject not just for the representation of Grendel’s mother, but also the mere in which she lives. In this way Trilling’s work was a catalyst for my own research, and a key building block for my own thinking about Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems.

Parergon can be accessed via Project MUSE (from Volume 1 (1983)), Australian Public Affairs – Full Text (from 1994), and Humanities Full Text (from 2008). For more information on the current issue and on submitting manuscripts for consideration, please visit https://parergon.org/